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Centering Indigenous Knowledges: Resilience and Women in the Sciences

A gathering to learn, celebrate, and acknowledge resilience from indigenous peoples’ knowledges, was held on October 3rd, 2019 at Wentworth Innovation + Entrepeneurship Center and the Museum of Fine Arts – Boston.

Grace Bulltail, citizen of the Crow Tribe and a descendant of the Madan, Hidatas, and Arikara Tribes of Fort Berthold, North Dakota; Sapoóq’is wiít’es (Ciarra Greene), citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe; and Ranalda Tsosie, citizen of the Diné Nation, joined this year to be the special guests of the Native & Indigenous Affinity Group’s First Annual Indigenous Resilience Event. The two part event focused more particularly on native peoples’ resilience through science, technology, and indigenous knowledges. The guest women discussed the ongoing limitations of working in certain environments like academic institutions but represented the success when overcoming those boundaries by centering and applying their indigenous knowledges to the work they do. 

Grace Bulltail is an Assistant Professor in the Nelson Institute for environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where her work revolves around water resource management, water policy, tribal sovereignty, and watershed impacts from natural resource development. She received her bachelor of science in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford University and later completed her doctoral program at Cornell in the department of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agricultural and Life Science. During her time at the event, Dr. Bulltail discussed how western sciences need to open a space for indigenous methodologies. She confirmed the validity of indigenous knowledges belonging in scientific study by sharing personal accounts of how funding for her research during her time as a PhD Candidate was incredibly difficult. However, despite the challenges she was able to complete her dissertation on water quality impacts from natural resource development in multi-jurisdictional watershed in Montana, Wyoming and Crow tribal lands. 

Sapoóq’is wiít’es (Ciarra Greene) is currently pursuing her MS degree in Science Teaching at Portland State University and serves on the Nez Perce Tribe General Council Resolutions Committee. She is a contractor for curriculum and program development focusing on culture in STEM fields, and recently accepted a position at Northwest Indian College as Native Environmental Science Faculty at the Nez Perce Campus (2019). Sapoóq’is wiít’es is motivated by Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) culture and traditions that emphasize environmental stewardship and drives her own professional and personal endeavors. Her research at Northern Arizona University where she received her BS in Chemistry focuses on environmental transport and stabilization of uranium on the Navajo Reservation. This work translated to much of the discussion Sapoóq’is wiít’es shared with participants during the event. She focused very much on the conditions of access and how scientific instruments can be used to solve problems back home in her community. Sapoóq’is wiít’es also pointed out the limited interest of science of younger generations in her community and sought to get them more interested in STEM. With the underrepresented presence of indigenous people in the sciences, Sapoóq’is wiít’es knew the students who enter in STEM will have to be resilient to the traditional knowledge and methods within the field. She wanted to help lead that resilience. 

“I never wanted to be a teacher, but seeing that need and being able to connect to students from a cultural perspective rather than a formal education—what most people would think as an academic perspective. We’re always told you’re given these gifts to use, and if you aren’t using these gifts you’re not serving your purpose. So with my given name, “thing that causes survival,” and given these gifts, I’m obligated to use them.” 

Ranalda Tsosie is currently pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis in the areas of Chemistry, geosciences, and environmental studies at the University of Montana. Her current research interests include aqueous uranium chemistry, groundwater characterization, environmental remediation and the development of a point of use filter that incorporated Silica Polyamine Composites. Ranalda stressed the importance of indigenous stories as scientific teachings. An example she shared drew attention to how indigenous people were well aware of climate change happening before it became a western understanding because indigenous people had to depend on the changes in climate and therefore, the movement of life in order to strategically survive. Ranalda reflected,

“[I] started seeking out other stories of indigenous knowledge that explain science not in the traditional western format. It felt like I needed to give examples because you think about the people that you’re presenting to—especially in chemistry, they are non-native, mostly male, and older. They’re stuck in their ways so for me to give examples of how indigenous knowledge has always done science and has been practicing science for a long time it became an important case I had to make.” Ranalda encouraged participants to use indigenous knowledge not only for scientific work but to take oral stories seriously to better understand the world around us. 

Participants spent the day in a two part series starting with breakfast with the guest speakers at the Gathering of Women in the Sciences event and later at a panel style presentation called Indigenous Resilience Panel where guest panelists were able to share how they tie their work with their community, how they continue to remain resilient in academic institutions, and discuss the traditional knowledges applied to their work. Mary Jo Ondrechen, professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern, moderated the Q & A.

Sponsors: Northeastern University Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, Northeastern ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development, NU-SCI Inclusive Excellence, mfa Boston, Northeastern College of Science, Accelerate Wentworth Innovation + Entrepreneurship Center, Native & Indigenous Affinity Group, Center for Diversity and Social Justice Programs Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern College of Social Sciences and Humanities 

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